2003; 366 pages. Full Title : The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War – Top Ten Rankings of the Best, Worst, Largest, and Most Lethal People and Events of the Civil War. New Author? : No. Genre : Non-Fiction; Military History; Lists. Overall Rating : 7½*/10.
Hey, did you know that almost 30 years before the Civil War, South Carolina had already threatened to secede from the United States? (pg. 60). Or that some other names proposed for the Confederate States were (among others) Chicora, Columbia, and Alleghenia? (pg. 65). How about the fact that they used to use Mercury in the manufacture of hats? (pg. 117). Or that General Ambrose Burnside, one of the many incompetent Union commanders, would later become the first president of the NRA? (pg. 280).
If you like cluttering up your brain with trivia such as that, and I do, The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War will be a sheer delight to you. OTOH, if you’re a serious History buff, well, this book is still for you. And if you really like the “mystique” of the Civil War – the “Dixie” mindset of diehard Southerners, the “Lincoln the Great Emancipator” mindset of diehard Northerners – you may want to avoid this book. Thomas Flagel’s objectivity is going to shatter your illusions.
Okay, one trivia question to whet your appetite. What was General Robert E. Lee’s overall record in the major engagements in which he commanded the CSA forces? Useless hint : the total number of these battles was 23.
The answer is given in the comments section of this post.
What’s To Like...
The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War is done in the same style as the previous Thomas R. Flagel book I read (reviewed here): all sorts of aspects of the conflict presented in “Top Ten Rankings” format. These are not merely “Top Ten Lists”; each entry is usually several paragraphs of in-depth facts and analysis, and each entry finishes up with some fascinating bit of trivia. One example that I really enjoyed was learning about the origin of Memorial Day, which, once upon a time, was known as “Decoration Day” (pg. 361).
I liked the balanced approach employed by the author. Sorry, Johnny Reb, but the war really was, first and foremost, about slavery, although there were lots of other reasons as well. But also sorry, Yankee Doodle, Lincoln’s motivations for going to war had little to do with emancipation, at least initially.
The book is divided into 7 sections listed below. My favorite topics in each section are listed; “T10” stands for “Top Ten”.
T10 Causes of the Civil War.
T10 Differences between the USA & CSA Constitutions.
3. Military Life
4. The Home Front
T10 Acts of Dissent.
T10 Songs (including pacifist/protest tunes).
5. In Retrospect
T10 Best Commanding Generals.
T10 Worst Commanding Generals.
T10 Military Blunders (#4 is Pickett’s charge).
6. Pursuing The War
T10 Ways to be an accurate reenactor.
Some final thoughts from Thomas R. Flagel (and well wroth the read).
Section 5 is the “meat” of the book – the fighting itself. Naturally, it was my favorite part. There are also plenty of pictures scattered throughout the book, both etchings/drawings and actual photographs.
Before a march began, foot soldiers were instructed to pack three days’ rations including salt pork, which they habitually ate in one sitting. This wolfing was sometimes a matter of weak willpower but usually an act of practicality. Stuffed in a haversack or in pockets, sowbelly oozed grease, gathered lint and dust, jumbled with the other contents, and rotted quickly. Better to eat it all, figured most soldiers, and take one’s chances with foraging or resupply than to wait a few days and watch the rations become even more repulsive than they already were. (pg. 102)
Most reenactors spend a pretty shinplaster on their replicated duds, subsequently treating their uniforms better than a Sunday suit. Even those attempting to represent the mismatched nature of Civil War outerwear, sporting a homespun shirt or a hand-me-down hat for example, still appear pristine compared to the real campaigners. To an actual soldier, there were four kinds of clothes: lost, tossed, dress, and damaged. (pg. 313)
An ardent oversimplifier with freakish stamina, John Brown failed at everything save breeding children and agitation. (pg. 22)
There are a couple quibbles. For starters, a full one-third of the book (pgs. 367-497) is taken up by the sections “Notes”, “Bibliography”, “Image Credits”, and “Index”. I recognize the need for these, as nitpickers and dissenters-of-opinion are going to try to tear apart the points made in The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War that chafe their undies. But come on, now. We live in the Digital Age. Can’t all this be listed on-line and readers/arguers simply given a link to that stuff? Save the trees!!
Second, it seemed to take a long time to get to the “war” parts of the book. The non-tree-killing parts covered 366 pages, and really interesting parts about the fighting itself were limited to pages 206 to 301. While there were some kewl lists in the other sections, there were aome boring parts too.
I don’t recall as many slow sections in The History Buff’s Guide to World War 2, although it’s been a while since I read that one. Maybe the innovative way of presenting history was fresher when I read the WW2 book. Or maybe the author became more polished between writing the two books. “Civil War” was written nine years before “WW2”.
But let’s not overemphasize the few negatives. As the title implies, this book will appeal to any and all history buffs, and there’s enough interesting stuff there to more than compensate for a couple of slow stretches. I enjoyed “Civil War”, even if it didn’t quite measure up to “WW2”.
7½ Stars. Above all, I appreciated this book addressing a question that puzzled me way back in 5th-grade, which was: If the Civil War was all about freeing the slaves (I grew up in Pennsylvania), and the fighting started in 1861, how come Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t issued until 1863?. Thank you, Thomas R. Flagel.